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Everybody Has a Story: Life in Depression aftermath

In October 1941, my father made a trip from our home in Omaha, Neb., to Portland. He and a childhood friend had been buying cars for two brothers who owned car lots around the city. Cars sold for less in Nebraska than they did in Oregon, so the job of my dad and his friend was to buy Nebraska cars and recruit drivers willing to drive them to Portland.

After my mother died in 1992, I came across a letter my dad had sent her while he was in Oregon. It reminded me of how our country was after coming out of the Great Depression and into World War II. The letter is still in its original envelope with a one-cent stamp on it, and the cancellation mark reads BUY DEFENSE BONDS AND STAMPS. It’s dated Portland, Ore., Oct. 10, 1941.

Here is the letter. (The Columbian has edited it for brevity and clarity but tried to retain the flavor.)

Dearest Mabel,

Hope you and the kids are all right. I am O.K. We got here about 9 o’clock. One guy went to sleep and wrecked Peck’s ’41 Chev at Baker, Ore. I sure hate it, but it isn’t my fault. I had them all behind me, and I can’t drive their cars for them. He wrecked the car I was going to drive around and sell. We had to leave it in the Ford garage in Baker.

I talked to Peck Tuesday, and he said he would get here Sunday. So I don’t suppose we will start home before Tuesday. So I ought to be home next Friday.

I got me a place to room and board for $8 a week. Came here Tuesday night and found out Wednesday that you only get two meals a day. Breakfast and supper. The meals you do get are cooked all right, but you only get half enough to eat. She is an old miser. Has two old men like my dad helping her for their room and board. But the house and yard are beautiful. Cost $52,000. Used to belong to a millionaire.

She asked me yesterday if I could get my boss and his wife to come stay here when they get to town. I said, hell no, I was the only one on a diet. They like to eat three meals a day.

I am sure tired of staying here. Wish I was home. Peck can’t get here too soon to suit me. It sure is lonesome. I stay around here most of the time as it is too far to walk into town. It’s just like being in jail. I went to town yesterday with a guy who is staying here. We paid 10 cents apiece to go on a battleship (USS Oregon MM).

I stopped at every travel agency coming out here and couldn’t get a passenger. I am going down to the Labor Temple tomorrow and see about a job in the shipyards. You put your application in, then you have to be there every day at 10 and 2 o’clock til they call your name off. It sometimes takes two to three weeks to get on. They pay common labor 87 cents an hour, and you work 7 hours for 5 days and get paid for 8 hours, and you work 7 hours Saturday and get paid for 12 hours. So you can get in 52 hours a week. Then if you work at night, you get 15 percent more. So you can make about $52 a week.

Can rent a six-room furnished house for $35 a month. We’ll have $55 coming from Peck when I get home. We will talk it over when I get back if I ever do and do something. If there are any ads in the paper for car salesmen, save them.

Well, wish I was going home instead of this letter. I haven’t any money, but I don’t need any. Well, sweetheart, I’ll see you soon. Love, Ralph. P.S., tell the kids hello.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes true, first-person tales by Columbian readers, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.


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